The 39 Steps

Mill Theatre Banbury 22nd-25th April 2015

Move over Robert Donat and Kenneth More, there’s a new Richard Hannay in town. From the moment Andrew Whiffin stepped onto the stage as the protagonist in this superb production, he was the suave, erudite, well-dressed Richard Hannay we have seen portrayed over the years. Sporting the pencil thin moustache required of the period, Mr Whiffen gave an excellent performance, completely convincing, confident and energetic.

Banbury Cross Players’ third production in their season was The 39 Steps, adapted by Patrick Barlow from the original novel by John Buchan. It provided a hilarious evening of pure entertainment. The action follows roughly (very roughly) Buchan’s original story of Hannay being sort by the police for murder (he’s innocent of course). He flees to Scotland in search of the mysterious baddy with the tip of his little finger missing. He can help our hero with his enquiries.

To start at the beginning, up go the opening credits for the play, projected on the rear wall. Just like the black & White ‘B’ movies some of us are old enough to remember. This is just how it is meant to be. The play is performed as it were being produced as a 1930’s film on a budget, which in itself provides great hilarity with the endless number of props and the shortage of actors. This of course provides a problem for reviewers of the piece. Where the action is a tad suspect and some of the Scottish accents are appalling, ranging from just plain bad to Irish and yes, some American in there methinks, is that meant or not?

Back to the plot. Ably directed by Chrissie Garret, The 39 Steps must have been great fun to produce. The ingenuity of the props crew had to be seen to be believed. Fireplaces doubling for cars, sceneshifters with torches on poles to represent the police searching the moors in the mist, excellent. The lighting plots of John Hicks and Linda Shaw added greatly to the atmosphere and the sound effects provided by the four-piece orchestra led by John McCormick, who was clearly enjoying himself, were spectacular. I would be interested to know how they got their timing spot on.

Clare Lester played a couple of parts, providing the corpse in the first scene and also popping up in various scenes to give Mr Hannay away to the law, until eventually she realises he is telling the truth about his innocence and the network of international spies known as – wait for it – The 39 Steps. If this sounds slightly sombre, forget it, the play is a hoot from start to finish.

Ms Lester was kept busy throughout the exercise and frankly we could have been in the West End judging by the calibre of her performance.

How do you review the other two main performers, Nik Lester and Dave Smith? They had more parts than a Boeing 747, and the quick fire changes they executed, sometimes whilst holding a conversation with themselves added to the fun.

The famous Forth Bridge scene was done well although I would have liked to see some kind of railway footage projected on the back wall to add ambience. The chase over the bridge was excellent and again the prop department came up trumps with the ingenious use of a pair of steps and a ladder.

As mentioned, the idea behind this adaptation of The 39 Steps story is to parody an Alfred Hitchcock film of the time. The play throws in the occasional snippet appertaining to a number of his triumphs. I spotted North by Northwest and Psycho. The use of the Coronation Scot and Dick Barton theme again added to the period of the piece.

In all a cracker of a production. Dave Smith and Nik Lester must have, and should have, been exhausted by the end of the evening. Coats, wigs and kilts in all directions, and I especially liked the homemade bagpipes. OBE’s have been given for less.

My favourite line of the night went something like this: Woman: My Uncle Bob is a Chief Inspector at Scotland Yard.

Man: Your Uncle Bob?

Woman: Yes

Man: So Bob’s your Uncle.

Made me laugh.